Worship 12 September

Audio Recording

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

And day followed night, bringing forth new forms of life day by day.

24 [On the sixth day] God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’ And with the specification of humans as animals, day six comes to a close.

God continues musing,“30 to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Since I’m preaching the order of creation backwards, last week was humankind – God’s after lunch creation of day six – accompanied by my confessed unhappiness about being a human, and that the image of God in us seems to have tarnished. I am not alone in this. Just a few chapters later, in Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—for I am sorry that I have made them.’ That was last week.

This is animal week and I’m quite a bit happier about it. 

I admit that I have a ‘child of the forest’ relationship to animals, which allows a lot of whimsy and explains why I name and talk to the chipmunks in my back garden and feel that we have a relationship of mutual support. They eat from my hand and let me stroke their soft stripes. I grew up in the woods, not on a farm. Food came from the Save More grocery store, the best Christmas pears from Harry & David sent by my aunt and uncle, and summer vegetables from Altenburg’s farm wagon that came up from central Wisconsin twice a week.  There were no hunters or fishermen in my family. The forest animals I watched and talked to were all alive. And that’s the way I like it.

God likes them to be alive, too.  The Mulligan attempt of re-creation with the flood wasn’t for the sake of humans. I think it is our hubris to assume so. Noah was the best helper God found. Noah was the animal with opposable thumbs that could use hand tools. And, clearly, humans needed to be reminded that they shared day six with cows and chipmunks and hedgehogs and creeping things of every kind. God told Noah, (Genesis 618 )“I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him…. And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark.” 

Eventually, as we know, the flood subsided and dry land appeared.

8:15Then God said to Noah, ‘Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.’ And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.” 

I like that line. They went in two by two, and come out as families. Especially the mice and bunnies.

I think this story is told – was told around the nightly fires for generations and generations and placed into the cannon of scripture as a reminder and a corrective – because it is important to remember that we are animals, and that human animals were given gifts of thumbs and pre-frontal cortexes so we could better fulfill our vocation of tending and tilling. That’s it. That’s what we are to do. Tend to the ones without thumbs, tend to the trees, tend the water, till the soil for food, but tend to the habitats of God’s animals and bugs and birds and fish and everything that creeps on the earth or swims its waters or soars above it – “to keep them alive with you” so that they may abound and be fruitful and multiply. The animals were on the ark as equals to Noah and his small family. They ate the same food as each had ability to digest. They were not on the boat for fresh meat for Noah’s BarB. Maybe the humans got some eggs. But we are all of the same creation, all from the same creator.

Day six in my second resource for these weeks of creation, provides this poem by Christopher Smart (1722-1771). It is selections from his longer poem, from Jubilate Agno.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself…
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life…
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.…
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion…

I like the idea from this poem that God and animals have a language, an understanding between themselves to which we are not privy. I think humans need to be reminded regularly that we are not better than animals, not more deserving of the earth’s resources. We are an invasive species, largely out of place within the natural cycles and sustainable processes of the earth because we have chosen domination over tending. Hubris was the sin that lead to the flood – false pride, arrogance – and as the tower of Babel story proved, hubris survived the waves. Humility is the opposite, and empathy, listening more and making less noise.

Which brings me to dogs and back to the summer edition of Plough. In The Book of the Creatures, Peter Mommsen writes,

“Dogs evolved “expressive eyebrows” to trigger feelings of affection in humans, according to a 2019 study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that in the thirty thousand years since dogs separated from wolves and began consorting with us, their faces have changed so that their eyes “appear larger and more infant-like” and are capable of mimicking human expressions. When they look at us, we feel the same tenderness as when we’re face-to-face with a young child. Put more cynically, dogs have managed to hack into our most primal emotion.” You know that look.

“Is it then instinctive manipulation when my Brittany hound gazes at me with his sad and eager eyes? No doubt, but that’s not the whole story. By analyzing hormone levels, the same study showed that dogs feel a pleasurable rush when their masters show them affection. Their masters feel the same, thanks to the same chemical, oxytocin. Evidently, we have learned to communicate as fellow creatures who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”

The cattle of the field have the same response.

Cow Cuddling is a thing, and became quite popular during the pandemic when loneliness and longing for physical closeness and touch was so deeply felt. This unique pastime began in rural Dutch provinces more than a decade ago, and is part of a wider Dutch effort to bring people closer to nature and country life. Today, farms in Rotterdam, Switzerland and here in the US are offering cow-hugging sessions and promoting the joy-inducing, stress-reducing experience. The practice is centered on the inherent healing properties of a good human-to-animal snuggle. Cow cuddlers rest against one of the cows for two to three hours. The warmer body temperature, slower heartbeat and mammoth size of the animal makes hugging them an incredibly soothing experience, and giving the animal that backrub, reclining against them is believed to promote positivity and reduce stress by boosting oxytocin in humans, the hormone released in social bonding. The calming effects of curling up with a pet or emotional support animal, it seems, are accentuated when cuddling with larger mammals. The cuddling experience seems to be pleasurable for the cows as well. A 2007 study in the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, states that cows show signs of deep relaxation, stretching out and allowing their ears to fall back when massaged in particular areas of their neck and upper back.

So, why can’t we be one among the many, a co-equal with the other creatures of day six? God said it was all good… what happened? How can evil exist in a good creation?  Peter Mommsen again, “Darwin was hardly the first to notice the existence of natural evil; it’s addressed in the Book of Job, likely the oldest book in the Hebrew Bible. This question has also had a long history of Christian reflection, going back at least to the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Romans, he wrote that creation is “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay,” “groaning in labor pains.” It’s a passage that seems remarkably apt as a description of the realities of natural selection – or indeed, of the Covid pandemic.

The answer to the riddle, for the early Christian authors, lies in the nature of reality itself. All creatures, they believed, are words in the book of nature; but that book’s preeminent Word is the Logos, the Word made flesh. Maximus the Confessor, who died in 662, wrote that when we read the book of nature, what we are really reading is “the words of the Word.”

When we forget how to read the book of nature, we forget how to read ourselves. Mommsen writes, “One great gain arising from our civilization’s crime of global environmental destruction is the growth of ecological consciousness. We’re slowly – far too slowly – realizing what it would mean to lose the natural world from which we arose and to which we belong.

“Environmental activists bolster their cause by citing statistics showing the costs of climate change in habitat loss, economic and social disruption, or perhaps the disappearance of specific species. But underlying these rhetorical tools is a more basic conviction: That nature in all its intricate diversity has an inherent dignity and beauty. That ecosystems and landscapes are goods in themselves that ought not to be destroyed, regardless of any effects on GDP. That blue whales, African elephants, and the Amazon rain forest have a value of their own that we are bound to respect.

“The pandemic has created a new moment of millions of people worldwide re-learning to read the book of nature, even if only partially and imperfectly. Perhaps as we learn to read again, we’ll find that human nature, too, becomes more clearly legible. And perhaps too, as we read more deeply, we’ll again learn to decipher the signs of the Goodness behind nature – the one who is both author and subject of the book of the creatures, and who, in the words of our final hymn, “gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.”

Dear Lord who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a faithful donkey, bless all of your wonderful animals, give them shiny coats and full udders, swift legs and strong backs, cozy nests and cuddles. Keep us mindful of their rightful place as siblings of a different species, with us in this ark of your earth, to keep them alive with us. Compel us to share the resources of food, fresh water, clean air and safe homes not only with our fellow humans (which is more than we do now) but also with them, who are not lesser creatures nor less deserving. Amen